REVIEW by Tomos Owen

NWR Issue 97

Married Love

by Tessa Hadley

Married Love is Tessa Hadley’s latest collection of stories, and follows her well-received novel of last year, The London Train. There is a wonderful moment in ‘In the Country’, the seventh of the collection, which demonstrates Hadley’s mastery of the short story. The story pivots on an absence, its fundamental event happening in an empty space on the page. Over the course of her mother-in-law’s sixtieth birthday party, Julie, conventionally married with children, is drawn to Seth, the partner of her sister-in-law, who is an actor on Emmerdale. As the birthday weekend continues, so builds the frisson between the two characters, the unspoken attachment between them growing due to their shared outsider status and slight reticence around the tactile familiarity of their in-laws. When they encounter each other in the countryside near the family home, a release from the stifling conviviality of family life is enabled: Seth sniffs from a stash of drugs while Julie relates and recreates the devotional practices she followed in her youth when she was a Christian. Yet the moment when the emotional – almost spiritual – intensity of the scene is set to reach a crescendo is the very moment when Hadley withdraws.

The narrative shifts from the force of Julie’s intense encounter with Seth to her later remembrance of it, caused by his appearance on Emmerdale, and how, after their return to the family house, their interactions ‘were a code for something else enormously important that had happened, but did not appear.’ Sex, in other words, disappears into the gap which is the section break in the story. The awkward, ungainly business of sexual intercourse occurs offstage, while the emotional, affective weight of the encounter resonates strongly, beforehand and afterwards.

This is one of several examples in the collection of how Hadley is able to indicate how these ‘enormously important’ events happen but do not always appear. In ‘Friendly Fire’, it is a never-ringing mobile phone which permeates the narrative. Shelley turns her phone off so that she may concentrate on helping her friend Pam in her cleaning business; her son Anthony is a soldier in Afghanistan, and the story centres on Shelley’s maternal anxiety about him, particularly in light of his decision to volunteer for a big operation which means his leave is cancelled. Hadley’s focus is not on the event itself (the long-feared phone call, or indeed, the conflict), but rather on the anticipation of that call: it is the silent, silenced, phone which haunts the narrative by containing within it, like a loaded gun, the all-consuming possibility of tragedy and disaster. Hadley’s technical skill in this regard is matched by her style, which is delicate yet assured, complex yet beautifully incisive.

The title-story of the collection is about Lottie’s unsatisfactory marriage to composer Edgar, her university music teacher. Hadley beautifully captures how the charisma and excitement of their coming together has given way to the humdrum monotony of married love. Edgar returns home from his ex-wife’s house, where he has been composing, and while he makes himself tea, Lottie, in another room, listens to the commonplace monotony of her everyday life: ‘Lottie followed the ordinary kitchen music – the crescendo of the kettle, the chatter of crockery, the punctuation of cupboard doors, the chiming of the spoon in the cup – as if she might hear in it something that was meant for her.’ Hadley at this point invites us to think of the work of another composer, John Cage’s ‘4’33’, as a silence which signifies; but we might also ponder to what extent Lottie herself is here caged, restricted by her maternal and uxorial obligations, aware of a life unlived.

A tangent is a line defined by its relation to a curve, even though it touches that curve at one point only. There is a similarly tangential quality to many of the stories in Married Love: they are conditioned by events, encountered or described in only the briefest ways, which continue to reverberate powerfully throughout the collection. Hadley shows, brilliantly, how the night before and the morning after are often more momentous than the thing itself.

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previous review: The Marriage Plot
next review: Homuncular Misfit


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